Think small

Between the Triple Crown season and Breeder's Cup Halloween weekend, it's back to the sticks for most of the racing.

Handicapping horse races staged in places where you might find tractor parts in the infield requires a special mindset: think hustler.

Breeding becomes untraceable and often irrelevant. Crowds are non-existent.

Here are some of the major differences in big and little time horse race guessing.

Favorites: Deep analytics would reveal that playing a cheap favorite in a bargain basement environment would be like leaving your billfold on the sink in the track restroom. Lots of favorites at the lower claiming level would rather be home on the range. You might play the occasional favorite dropping in from a better brand of racing for some slot machine inspired purse money. But even then, you have to be prepared for a 4-5 shot to experience the number one dinky track malady: forgetting to break. The cheap chalk seems to lose most of its races in the gate. Inexpensive favorites are often best regarded as exacta savers, a few bucks on the best with the worse. The unreliable nature of cheap favorites is why the "All" letters are worn off the buttons at some small tracks.

Badness: Trainer and jockey stats don't lie. If you need a horse to be ridden in a certain way, sit on your money. Staying on a horse is often the strategy down here. It's the rare occasion when jockeys have clocks in their heads. Often it's rocks. Sometimes it's hard to tell the trainers from the scavengers. Stay away from lousy records.

The impossible: Watching a horse that can't win, win, is like a small track tax you pay for the right to compete against some of the worst handicappers on earth. How can a horse that hasn't been able to get out of its own way run out of its skin against you? It usually has to do with training habits. The impossible lurks behind many shadows at small tracks. Your only defense is to stop complaining and pay attention. Other horses under the spell of a miracle worker trainer sometimes catch the racing magic. The small horse race track is one place where the impossible can be contagious.

Late runners: How dumb are some handicappers? Dumber than storm chasers. It is routinely thought that horses closing at a shorter distance will be great plays at a longer distance. Simple math dictates that the opposite is usually the case. Bad rides up front create the illusion of deep closers. So it is not uncommon at tracks were some riders have cobwebs or hangovers in their heads to see a horse make up 20 lengths; or, more accurately, you can see horses going way too fast early lose 20 lengths. Stoppers folding in front of deep closers is a frequent small track occurrence that seldom carries over to the big time.

Small track pickers: You'd think most pickers enjoy a good wager. Most are pals with some of the local trainers. So why would a picker take money out of his or her pocket by giving everybody the word on a hot 10-1 shot? Glory is less important than cash in the boondocks. Usually small track pickers re-confirm the obvious.

Tie breakers: Sometimes two or three of them look alike. Sometimes they all look alike.

Here are some small track tiebreakers.

Neatness: I'll take a well-groomed trainer over a slob anytime. The same goes for barn personnel and owners. Body language among connections can often be handicapped.

Tape: At most small tracks, horses without front wraps stand out like a healthy thumb. If two of them have similar PPs, I'll usually go with the horse without wraps.

Post positions: Bad posts seem to take a greater toll on cheap horses. Outside horses with a short run to the first turn are extremely risky. Quick outside horses with a long run down the backside in a four-furlong race, with plenty of room to get the lead and get over, can be super-fine.

Tracks: Among healthy horses, best track competition wins, shippers over locals included.

Open company trumps state-breds coming from higher priced races. Speed over closers. Class drop-downs are not always injured and can be after the slot machine money. What smart money there is goes into the exotic pools. Maidens trying a route first time out never win. Don't tip until the end of the card because you could need the money back. Longer works before routes make sense. Horses that were bet down to nothing first time out and ran lousy are worth another look. And any old work at a small track is a beautiful sign.